Musa Al-Gharbi (@musa_algharbi) is a research associate at Heterodox Academy and a PhD student in sociology at Columbia University. He is a writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and several other venues. The topics of his research include terrorism, extremism, war, antiracism, and, more recently, U.S. political elections.
So there’s this real problem where in order to move the needle on a lot of the social issues that progressives want to address, they just need to be able to engage with a far larger band of people than we’re training them to engage with. I mean even from the religious standpoint, most Americans are religious and most people, especially outside of the United States – again, if you’re talking about in developing nations, even more religious and in a different way than Western Europeans and Americans often are – and we’re just fundamentally not training social researchers to be able to speak in a religious language or even feel comfortable engaging with religious people or their narratives or frames of reference.
This is a professional transcript but it may contain errors. Please do not quote it without verification.
Chris Martin: My guest today is Musa al-Gharbi. He’s a researcher at Heterodox Academy. He’s a PhD student in Sociology at Columbia and he’s a writer whose work has not only been featured on our blog, but also in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic and several other venues. The topics of his research range from terrorism to war to anti-racism and more recently, he has been writing about US political elections. You can find out more about him at his website musaalgharbi.com. So here is Musa al-Gharbi. Welcome to the show.
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Chris Martin: We’re glad to have you on. On previous episodes, I’ve interviewed professors pretty much uniformly and you’re the first student to be in the interviewee’s chair on this show. I’m curious. Tell me a bit about how you as a graduate student decided to join Heterodox Academy.
Musa al-Gharbi: I had kind of an unusual journey. I mean in academia in general but maybe the Heterodox Academy as well. So I started in community college and a lot of the concerns that we deal with at Heterodox Academy weren’t such a big deal there.
I mean a lot of times at community colleges, you have much more diverse student bodies, even racially and ethnically, but definitely in terms of like socio-economic status and political orientation. But then when I went to University of Arizona, which is where I got my bachelor’s and my master’s degree, I noticed a big shift pretty immediately and it was mainly just that you would see almost all the professors were clearly aligned with the left — and to the extent that they talked about sort of non-leftist views at all, a lot of the talk was very uncharitable.
But usually they just excluded frameworks that were not affiliated with the left to begin with. I found that disturbing and irksome often because I myself come from a conservative community and family. I’m very familiar with conservative thought and I know that conservatives have a lot to add to many of these conversations and I felt like more diverse input would have enriched and enlivened a lot of these conversations.
But still, I mean when I would hear things on the news about like safe spaces and trigger warnings and microaggressions and the like, I always thought that that was – like I didn’t think that any of that stuff was real or particularly salient to anyone’s university experience. I thought it was just people on the right blowing stuff out of proportion or whatever. But then when I got to Columbia, I saw that –
Chris Martin: You’re going for your PhD, correct?
Musa al-Gharbi: For my PhD now in Sociology. Yeah. And that was just a totally different climate. I think that the sort of elite East Coast schools – private schools as compared to public schools — maybe there’s just a different culture or a set of challenges or something. But I quickly came to see that – not only was there a lack of conservative perspectives – that I saw even at my previous university –but there is this real kind of hostility in some sense to even considering other views and just a really reactionary sort of politics associated with a lot of identity issues that I found disturbing. So that –
Chris Martin: You’re talking about for both professors and students of Columbia. Are you interacting with people outside the Social Department?
Musa al-Gharbi: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. The way our program is structured, it encourages interdisciplinary pursuits. So yeah, absolutely. But yeah, I mean professors and students – and even when you first arrived – like there’s this sort of administrative culture that seems to push very hard on some of the sort of identity frameworks.
Chris Martin: OK. So was it during your first year that you decided to join Heterodox Academy?
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah. I’d been familiar with Haidt’s work and with the Heterodox Academy initiative when I was at the University of Arizona. In fact I remember we talked about it a little bit when I was at Emory once. But I saw Jon at an event at Columbia University. Christina Hoff Summers was speaking and I saw him come in and I just was like, “Oh my god. You’re Jon Haidt,” and we just started talking about life and my background and what I was studying and I have my own interesting experience with viewpoint diversity and having my perspective suppressed or threatened.
So as we were talking, he decided that – he said, “Why don’t you come down to NYU? We’re just getting this Heterodox Academy thing going. I think you might have some interesting contributions to make.” So that’s how I started getting affiliated with Heterodox Academy.
Chris Martin: And around the time you joined, you wrote an essay. I think pretty soon after you joined, about freedom of speech and liberties in general being really important for disadvantaged groups as opposed to advantaged groups. I think the context of this was that people around the time were saying, “Well, freedom of speech is just a way for powerful people to oppress powerless people,” when you said just the opposite is true. I happen to agree because I’m from a foreign country and I feel like immigrants in general come here even though they’re going to be in a minority here because they feel like their rights are going to be protected. But how were you inspired to write that piece?
Musa al-Gharbi: I mean first these – a lot of the protections and norms around freedom of speech and freedom of expression were explicitly created to protect people who hold left, left-leaning views after the McCarthy inquisitions and to protect and empower minorities as a result of activism during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement.
So these are rules and policies that were, literally, created for our benefit. I mean if you are already in the dominant party, then you don’t need things to protect your ability to express yourself because chances are, you’re the one with the platform to begin with.
So there’s the historical element to these laws, that they’re designed to protect people on the left and minorities. But more than that, just look at contemporary dynamics: If you look at where professors are likely to be, minority professors and women are disproportionately likely to be sort of lower on the tenure track or non-tenured. Women are much more likely to be sort of contingent or adjunct faculty and men are much more likely to be tenured or tenure track faculty.
Professors of color are much more likely to teach at state schools or community colleges. So colleges that don’t have the same sorts of robust insulation a school like Columbia has, so they’re sort of more vulnerable to outside groups.
So if Fox News or someone like that wants to launch a campaign against a school like University of Arizona, a professor that teaches there is going to be much more vulnerable than a professor teaching at Columbia who gets attacked by Fox News — because at state schools, you’re being paid for with taxpayer dollars. So there’s this whole case to be made where constituents are like “this is where my tax money is going? To hire someone who’s teaching my children this?” You can’t really make the case the same way at Columbia because they’re not receiving taxpayer funding. So they’re less vulnerable to pressure from outsider groups.
Minority students are much more likely again to be going to land grant state universities or community colleges as opposed to sort of elite private institutions.
So both professors and students who are from disadvantaged groups are much more likely to be going to institutions where they’re more vulnerable to assaults for outside groups, for their views, and progressives are more likely to be the ones to be targeted for their abuse for a couple of reasons.
One reason is that conservatives on campus are somewhat rare. They tend to be politically moderate. So you don’t get like professors who are extreme right in the university too often the way you would have professors who are extreme left in the university.
Additionally, the public, in general, is just far to the right of your average university faculty member, even your average university student. The public is a lot more conservative than the academy is. So even if you – so they’re just less likely to be outraged by something that a conservative professor would say, even bracketing the fact that they moderate anyway, so they’re not likely to say something super extreme.
But even if they did say something that was like far to the right of university norms and it made university people angry, the public would be much less likely to be outraged about that as compared to something that a professor on the left might say.
So there’s a sense in which progressives are also more vulnerable to being targeted by these sorts of campaigns to college professors than someone on the right would be.
Chris Martin: So on the blog post, it has been at least two years since you published that post now. What kind of reception did that get? I mean did other students in your department read that post?
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah. It was warmly received by the faculty and students at Columbia that read it. In fact, at the time that I published that in The Atlantic, I was taking this class on race and equality.
I would say most of the students who were in that class were predisposed to think that a lot of the protections for freedom of conscience and freedom of expression basically defended people like Richard Spencer and Milo instead of people like Lisa Durden and I feel like at least for the students who are in that class and who are – who I was able to discuss this with or the students who emailed me afterwards to say, “Oh, I saw this,” and it was a provocative, great thought. You know, things like this.
I think I was able to help move the needle at least a little bit to introduce some more sort of complexity of – around that issue. But the problem is, is it’s just – my impression is that the sort of starting position for most students today is – who haven’t like really – who haven’t really done a lot of like hard contemplation on this issue or done like a lot of reading on the history of how these rights emerged and why.
I think the sort of reflexive position that a lot of them might take is one, towards being skeptical of these rights and protections and in fact, there’s this case recently of the Drexel University, George Ciccariello-Maher, where he was kind of fired but not fired for basically saying there was some kind of a link between white supremacist views and mass shootings.
So this is a position that’s not even like crazy or out there. I mean this is a position that’s widely held among the left and it’s a position that many academics have taken on the record. But what’s striking about the case of Ciccariello-Maher is that he himself was at various points very skeptical of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience protections and himself have called for other professors to be punished or terminated even for things that they said that they thought were sort of insufficiently progressive.
But then after he was put on indefinite leave from Drexel University, he went on social media and really went to the mat saying like it’s super important for professors to rally around protecting freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, especially for non-tenured faculty and for students.
That’s admirable. But it’s a shame that it had to get to that point for Maher himself to sort of come around to championing this view and hopefully it’s – it won’t be the case that other students have to sort of deal with Fox News and Breitbart and things like that before they understand why this stuff is important because it’s them – again, they’re the ones who they’re designed to protect.
Chris Martin: Yeah. I think there’s definitely this – a historical sense in the university where people – well, you just aren’t familiar with what happened prior to the McCarthy era and it’s interesting as you read about philosophy. For example Bertrand Russell I believe was fired from CUNY or almost fired from CUNY. I think he was actually fired because a parent of a student opposed his ethical position on the morality of sex or something like that and he was – that was at a point where Bertrand Russell was pretty well-know. That was in the ‘30s and he lost his job if I recall that incident correctly.
I think one reason is people sometimes miss this issue too. If you look at the constitution and the Bill of Rights, one thing I really like how the Bill of Rights are framed is they’re not framed directly about rights that people have, but they’re about rights that congress doesn’t have. So congress does not have the right to pass legislation obstructing your freedom of speech and if we think about the university, instead of asking ourselves, “Does Milo have the right to speak at your university?” if you ask yourself, “Does your university have the right to ban speakers?” or censor speech, then you realize if they do, then they have a right to censor your speech. So if you see that right, you’re losing that right.
Musa al-Gharbi: That is a pretty awesome insight. I might gank that from you or maybe we can write something together about it.
Chris Martin: Thank you. I’m actually clicking on a short piece about that right now. I don’t know when I’m going to publish it. But another issue – so you’re working on this piece right now. Unlike your blog post, it’s not yet published. But you’re working on a piece about how the lack of engagement with a right is a problem for progressive scholars who are actually trying to change societies, to be more equitable or more just. Can you elaborate on that?
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah. So there’s this real irony where – I mean most people who become social researchers do so because they don’t just want to understand social problems — they want to help mitigate them in some way. I mean and this goes back to the founding of a lot of social research fields, like the field of sociology was created in the U.S., in many respects. as a handmaid to the progressive social reform movement championed by people like FDR… or actually either Roosevelt.
But there’s a tension where we have this hunger to leverage social research and social change. But in order to do that, we have to be able to talk to people who don’t necessarily share our views.
So for instance, I mentioned earlier that most of the public is far to the right of most university professors. I mean like for instance in the social sciences, according to some measures, progressive social scientists outnumber conservatives something like ten to one in many social research fields.
But in the general population, conservatives outnumber people who identify as progressives by more than like a – not quite sort of two to one, but it’s something like a – like 50 percent. Take the number of progressives and add 50 percent to that and that’s how many conservatives are or something like that.
But it’s like there are substantially more people who identify as conservative than progressive in the general population and of course this large sort of band who doesn’t necessarily associate as either.
So if you’re in a democratic society and you want to create change – but you’re not able to talk to anyone who’s not a progressive. Then you’re just not going to be able to move the public. I mean you’re going to be able to move maybe 20 percent of the public or 30 percent of the public, tops. But that’s likely not going to be enough to do any kind of substantial sort of change or if you look to the policy makers for instance.
Say, OK, well, we won’t try to move the public. We will just try to engage with policy makers. Well, the problem with that right now is that Republicans control the large majority of governorships and state legislatures if you look at state government level. If you look at the federal government level, Republicans control both chambers of congress and the White House. You know, the current Republican president has appointed a number of conservative judges.
So even under the circumstance where say the pendulum swings the other way and you have an Obama 2008 sort of situation — even then, you still have to be able to engage with Republicans to execute the social policies you wanted… as Obama himself discovered throughout his administration.
So – and that’s just for social change in the United States. But then if you talk about people who want to go abroad and work for NGOs or work with foreign governments in sort of developing countries to address various social problems, to say that most of these populations are likely not progressive is an understatement. It’s not even on our sort of normal left to right scale. But suffice it to say if you go to sub-Saharan Africa and you want to talk to people about performativity of race or gender or something like that, I mean like they just don’t want to hear it. It’s just not relevant to their lives in any sort of accessible way.
So there’s this real problem where in order to move the needle on a lot of the social issues that progressives want to address, they just need to be able to engage with a far larger band of people than we’re training them to engage with. I mean even from the religious standpoint, right? Most Americans are religious and most people, especially outside of the United States – again, if you’re talking about in developing nations — are even more religious and in a different way than Western Europeans and Americans often are. And we’re just fundamentally not training social researchers to be able to speak in a religious language or even feel comfortable engaging with religious people or sort of narratives or frames of reference.
Chris Martin: I feel like one good development when it comes to political psychology now, political psychology research focusing on value change and communicating is we are starting to get some better insight with empirical research on how starting with the other person’s fundamental values and going from there. So for example, if you’re talking about environmentalism and climate change, starting – if you’re a liberal, starting with the idea that conservatives value purity. You talk about the purity or sanctity of the earth that is our home and you start from there and you talk about environmentalism. You know, more likely to get a response than if you start from – start by talking about how corporations profit over people, which is another way of framing the issue.
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah. And in fact the environmental case I find so fascinating because for a long time actually conservatives and the Republican Party which, you know, they were not always synonymous. But both the conservatives and the Republican Party at different points actually championed environmental issues.
I mean the national parks were created under sort of Teddy Roosevelt. The Environmental Protection Agency was signed into law by Richard Nixon. Conservatives and Christians have long felt that it was their moral Christian responsibility to be good stewards of the earth and to be grateful and show gratitude for the earth that was given onto us by God.
So you would – there’s this whole conservation movement and environmentalist movement. In fact there’s this great research by Dan Kahan on this issue and like one thing that it seems happened was that as the left really leaned into environmentalism during the like late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and leaned into environmentalism in a much more aggressive way. You know, with the – especially like the hippies and the tree huggers and like the sort of eco-radicals and stuff. It seems like what happened with a lot of people on the right is they started to associate like, “if this is what environmentalism is, these people, then I’m not one of those people.”
So there is this sort of like interesting sort of identity dimension to a lot of these issues that if you can sort of get at it from the identity side, then a lot of these problems become much more tractable because it’s not – again, it’s not that sort of conservatives fundamentally hate the environment or want to destroy the planet or they don’t care about anything but money or like any of those sorts of rhetoric. Those are just not true with most conservatives. It’s that there are all these other supervening things that would prevent them from endorsing environmental causes.
Chris Martin: You’ve got another paper coming out on affirmative action. I did a little bit of research on that myself about five years ago although I ended up using the data for something different. But tell me a bit about your take on affirmative action.
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah. As you know, Americans have sort of consistently and very strongly resisted affirmative action from – I mean basically since it has been on the table. Overwhelming American hostility towards race-based, group-based affirmative action.
So I just wanted to figure out why. So there are sort of three very prominent narratives about why this is.
So one of them is a sort of principled opposition hypothesis which is basically the idea that the reason Americans resist affirmative action is because they just fundamentally disagree with these sorts of redistributive schemes.
Then you have this economic anxiety hypothesis which is that like in principle, Americans don’t have a problem with affirmative action. It’s just that especially white Americans are concerned that in a market where, ceteris paribus, minorities are preferred over them, that they are – their loved ones or their family or whatever — will lose out in that kind of a market. So that’s why they resist it. It’s not on principle. It’s not because they have any kind of antipathy towards minorities. It’s just that they have economic concerns of their own.
Then there’s the racial tension hypothesis which holds basically that it’s not that Americans have a principled opposition to affirmative action. That’s not even so much economic anxiety that’s driving it. It’s just that a lot of people who oppose affirmative action oppose minorities benefiting from these sorts of programs or – so for instance, they might support affirmative action for women but not for Blacks or something along those lines. So it’s like a racial thing that’s driving it.
So in order to sort of test these hypotheses, I developed scales corresponding to each of these hypothesis in the most recent 2016 General Social Survey and I ran a series of regressions on different variables related to affirmative action to see which one of the hypotheses seemed to explain the most of the variance in public attitudes as reflected in the R-squared of the regressions.
Then what I found consistently is that actually principled opposition explained the most –followed by racial tension although followed by racial tension like a substantial degree less and then economic anxiety.
Chris Martin: How is principled opposition measured?
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah. So the sorts of variables I use for principled opposition tested public attitudes just in general about whether – if it was the government’s job to solve social problems or whether it’s the government’s job to rectify inequality or whether it’s the government’s job to sort out differences. Is inequality the result of hard work or – I mean do people get ahead by sort of hard work or lack or things like this? So things that get at how people understood what the role of – to understand how people think inequality happens and what sort of normative valence they attach to, to these inequalities.
But none of the variables made any kind of reference to race or anything like that or even the poor because there is this problem where I tested that most Americans in my sample robustly associated blackness with poverty. So I avoided any variables that directly reference poverty because they – out of concern, they might read sort of – when they read “poor”, they might maybe read “black” or something like that. So in order to control for that, I avoided any direct references to quote the poor.
Chris Martin: OK. Yeah. What I found when I was researching affirmative action is now with the policy level, there are a few people working in educational policy, well, primarily Richard Kahlenberg who have been trying to push affirmative action in a more class-oriented direction, and I was trying to tease out whether support for race-based affirmation action defers substantially from support for class-based and I found that there’s a – a pretty strong correlation between the two. I mean you might think that people who are white and have a strong sense of white racial identity would say, “Well, I do want poor white people to be helped.” They might have a substantially different view.
But in fact, it does seem like there’s a – like you say, principled opposition. In your case, I think you’re finding that the – some people, as a matter of principle, don’t feel like the government should be involved with engineering society and I think another issue is that some people just feel like we should live in a meritocracy and we do live to some – to a pretty large degree in a meritocracy. So if people are hierarchically-arranged in society, there’s probably a merit-based explanation for that I think.
Musa al-Gharbi: Yeah. In fact – so one thing I did is I also tested gender like – because they had a couple of variables that were related to gender-based affirmative action and I found that there was almost no sentiment, no difference even among white respondents. You could look at white respondents men, white respondents women and there was virtually no difference between attitudes about gender-based affirmative action as compared to race-based affirmative action. Except for there was a variant of the question, which asked about looking harder to find – should companies sort of look harder to find qualified women. It added the word “qualified” women and when they just added the word “qualified” there, they emphasized the qualified nature of the candidates, actually the dynamics flipped.
So then there was actually strong support for affirmative action for women when they emphasized that the women were qualified. But unfortunately in the GSS, there isn’t any variable that asks about race-based affirmative action that emphasizes that the sort of minority candidates are qualified.
But I suspect that if they did have a question which emphasized that they were qualified candidates, that maybe the public opinion would be softer. So again, I think what it seems is that there’s this real concern that – about undeserving people, like people who haven’t sort of – who haven’t – who on sort of merit grounds wouldn’t deserve the job, getting the job. That seems to be one of the big drivers.
Chris Martin: Well, I haven’t looked up Kahlenberg’s research recently and it would be interesting to see where he’s going with the class-based research and maybe he has found some factors. Maybe other researchers have found some factors that if you put them into the equation, you can tease out support for race-based versus gender-based versus other things.
I would love to talk about other topics but it looks like we’ve reached the half-hour mark. So any closing thoughts?
Musa al-Gharbi: No, I guess not. It was a great conversation. Hopefully, we will have a chance to talk some more down the line.
Chris Martin: I hope so too. Well, thanks for being on the show.
[End of transcript]
Musa al-Gharbi: Well, thank you for having me again.